NASA Selects Team to Build $10 Million ‘Planet Hunter’

March 29, 2016 Updated: March 31, 2016

NASA selected a Penn State-led team to build its new $10 million planet detector, according to a March 29 press release. 

The new gadget will search for planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets.

To detect exoplanets, researchers will use the instrument to measure the tiny back and forth “wobbling of stars,” which is caused by the gravitational tug of a planet in orbit around it. The movement indicates a planet orbiting the star, and the size of the wobble designates how immense the planet is.

The instrument will also be used to follow up on NASA’s planet-hunting missions Kepler/K2 and the in-development Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

The instrument is set to be completed in 2019.

The planet hunter is called NEID, which is short for NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy. NASA said the name is derived from a word meaning “to discover/visualize” in the native language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land the observatory is located. 

The “highly precise” instrument is set to be completed in 2019 and installed on the WIYN telescope at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory.

NEID will be the centerpiece of a new partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program, or NN-EXPLORE.

“This state-of-art precision instrument will enable the community to search for new worlds using the WIYN Telescope,” said NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz.

“We look forward to many new discoveries that can then be further explored using NASA’s space telescopes,” he added.

Penn State team lead, Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan, predicts NEID will be able to be used for one or two decades, according to Inverse.

We’re designing it to last a very long time.
— Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan, Penn State

“We certainly don’t anticipate things changing for many years,” he said.

“These instruments exist in vacuum chambers, in very stable environments. We’re designing it to last a very long time. It’s a unique resource, especially since it will be open-access. It’s phenomenally stable; it will be transformative,”Dr. Mahadevan told Inverse.

NASA said the NEID project will be run by its astrophysics division within the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.